Tricks and Recipes for Make-Ahead Meals

Make-ahead meals let you serve home-cooked dishes even on the most hectic day.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD

Action-packed weeknights, overscheduled weekends, days when you have too much to do before guests come over or before you go to someone else's house with a dish in hand -- there are plenty of times when "make-ahead" meals can come to the rescue.

Make-ahead meals put you in control of your schedule. You do the preparation when you have some extra time, then you're rewarded with a quick, home-cooked meal when things get hectic later in the day, week, or month.

Since dinnertime is often a hectic time for families, Janice Bissex, RD, author of The Mom's Guide to Meal Makeovers, says it can really help for moms or dads to make all or part of the meal in advance.

"Prepping ingredients to toss together at the last minute or assembling the full meal for reheating can make the dinner hour more relaxed and manageable," Bissex tells WebMD in an email interview.

There are several ways to make your meals ahead of time. You can assemble them early and keep in the refrigerator until you're ready to pop them in the oven. Or you can completely cook your meal, freeze or refrigerate it, then just warm it up at mealtime. Some make-ahead meals don't even require baking -- like main-dish green salads or pasta salads.

Paulette Mitchell, author of 13 cookbooks including A Beautiful Bowl of Soup, says her favorite strategy for make-ahead meals is to plan a soup and salad menu.

"All soups often benefit from being made ahead because standing time allows the flavors to blend," she says. Further, she says, most homemade salad dressings taste better when they are made a day in advance.

If you've got a slow cooker, you've got a leg up on make-ahead meals. Judith Finlayson, author of The Healthy Slow Cooker, calls the slow cooker the most effective time manager a cook can have.

"You can get all the ingredients prepped and even partially cooked, in most cases for up to two days ahead," she says.

Many slow-cooker recipes are suited to being prepared ahead of time, she says. Slow-cooker dishes like stews and chili also lend themselves to being frozen or refrigerated and reheated.

"You can do "big batch" cooking and have dinner for a second night during the week," she says. "Eat a portion on the day it is cooked, and freeze the rest for future meals."

Make-Ahead Meals for Breakfast or Brunch

Here are four make-ahead breakfast or brunch options for the next time you have to feed a crowd fast first thing in the morning:

1. Crepes. Just cook the crepes the day before and keep them in a sealed bag -- or wrapped well in foil -- in the refrigerator. Fill them with a mixture of fruits or assorted jams the next morning. Or add a ham and cheese filling, then heat them up. You can have the filling ingredients chopped and shredded and ready to go the night before, too.

2. Strata. Strata is an overnight breakfast entree by design. You're supposed to let it sit in the refrigerator, then bake in the morning. Thus it's a perfect make-ahead option.

3. Quiche. Quiche can be served warm or cold. Just bake it the day before, and, if you want to serve it warm, heat it up in the microwave.

4. Breakfast Breads, Coffee Cakes, and Muffins. You can always make bakery items ahead and serve them cold or warmed up in the microwave. To round out the breakfast or brunch, have fresh fruit ready to serve with it. You might also want to cook up a plate of light breakfast sausage, grilled Canadian bacon, or lean ham -- all of which can be warmed up in the microwave in two minutes.

Make-Ahead Meals for Dinner

Here are a few dinner dishes that are well suited to making ahead of time:

  • Most casserole-type dishes lend themselves to being made ahead, like tuna noodle casserole, au gratin style potatoes, chicken enchiladas, or a creamy chicken and rice dish.
  • Stew-type dishes, cooked and kept in the refrigerator, are ideal for warming up on demand -- a serving or two (or more) at a time.
  • If the ingredients are already cooked, cut, and ready, you can toss main-dish green salad together in less than 5 minutes.
  • Chilled pasta and rice salads (and salads made with other whole grains) are perfect when you need a cool dish to serve with virtually no time to spare.
  • Some mostly meat (or fish) dishes, like meatloaf, chicken Parmesan, and crab cakes, can also be made ahead and then cooked or reheated.